A faculty member and two graduate students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) who developed a motorized brace that enables people suffering from muscular dystrophy to perform simple tasks with their hands, and gain a greater sense of independence, have received WPI’s first Kalenian Award for entrepreneurship. The award includes $25,000 in seed funding to help the team further develop the technology.

The winners are Allen Hoffman, professor of mechanical engineering and co-founder of WPI’s Assistive Technology Resource Center, Michael Scarsella (’05) of Sterling, Mass, and Steven Toddes (’05) of Gettysburg, Pa. Scarsella and Toddes are both graduate students in WPI’s Mechanical Engineering Department.

The Kalenian Award was established this year by Alba Kalenian in memory of her late husband, inventor Aram Kalenian. Its purpose is to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship among WPI students, faculty, and alumni by providing seed funds to advance their ideas. Alba Kalenian says her husband believed “the highest and best use of a WPI education is to invent, and patent, then create an invention-based business and employ.”

The brace, call an arm orthosis, grew out of a series of WPI student projects conducted for the Massachusetts Hospital School, Canton, Mass, where student teams, advised by Hoffman, have been working on rehabilitation engineering projects since 1989. With advice from Gary Rabideau, director of rehabilitation engineering at the hospital, and input from patients with muscular dystrophy, Scarsella, Toddes, and Daniel Abramovich (’05) developed a prototype of a wearable, powered orthosis. Scarsella and Toddes have continued to refine the device as WPI graduate students.

Young people with muscular dystrophy retain dexterity in their hands, but due to the wasting in their shoulders, upper arms, and trunk, are unable to move their arms. The orthosis is a brace that fits over the arm. A joystick, held with the free hand, is used to operate motors that flex the arm at the elbow and rotate it to direct the hand to where it is needed. With the brace, the user can grip and move up to 3 pounds, making it possible, for example, to use a toothbrush or utensils for eating. A lap tray is used as a horizontal pivot point for the elbow, giving the user 2 degrees of freedom.

Hoffman says the technology has progressed to the point where it is ready for patenting and licensing. With the help of the Kalenian Award, he says he hopes the orthosis can be commercialized and made available widely to improve life for those with muscular dystrophy.

“This device could have quite an impact,” he says. “We’re still in the development stage, but we feel it’s a usable device. Right now, these people need assistance in all these activities. This device would allow them to do a number of activities independently.”

For his part, Rabideau says the device is one of the most remarkable improvements to wheelchair electronics that he has seen in the last 15 years.
“What I really like about it is that it actually helps these kids use their own hand instead of a robotic-controlled arm,” he says. “I think it keeps them connected. It’s more therapeutic, more gratifying.”

[SORUCE: EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS; Worcester Polytechnic Institute, June 2006]